A Bully Is As A Bully Does: Is This A Bully or a Crush Gone Bad?
What happens when the bully is a girl and the target is a boy? What if the bully, in pursuit of her crush on a boy, is a relentless harasser -- a girl who won’t take no for an answer? She doesn’t mean to be a bully. And no one views her this way, not even the boy. No one sees her as the bully she that is, except me, the boy’s mother, of course.
Already tricky waters, bullying often defies easy answers and cookie-cutter responses. And when you add a twisted gender-romance component, the complications multiply.
Here is our story.
My seventh grade son, Alfred, has garnered the attention of Sally, a girl in his class. (Their real names are neither Alfred nor Sally. They have been changed to protect the innocent. Though, in this story, everyone is innocent and not so innocent at the same time.)
At first, Sally just looked like a girl with a crush. But Alfred did not know nor was he interested in dating Sally. (Yes, these children are 12). Sally was initially aggressive with her attention, but her actions were primarily the makings of a crush -- talking to and texting mutual friends about Alfred, and interjecting herself into his classroom conversations. But once Alfred expressed that he did not share her affections, Sally soon became mean, publicly critical and relentless with her attention. Alfred is very social and quite outspoken. He says he tried to ignore Sally. He says he tried to make light of Sally’s comments. Eventually, Alfred repeated more forcefully his lack of interest, and he did so in ways that hurt her feelings (as in, saying “I don’t even know you. Leave me alone!” in a fully populated classroom). But Sally kept coming. And then she began to get physical: pushing Alfred, throwing objects at him, sitting on him in phys ed. It was time for Alfred to get help.
He came home and shared his troubles with his three older sisters—his counsel of women. They came to me in a panic.
“You need to help Alfred, Mom."
“We know girls like this,” my oldest daughter said. “If you don’t talk to someone at school, this is not going to end well!”
And so, obedient to the counsel, I met with the seventh grade administrator. To my dismay, the administrator confided that he did not know what to do about the situation. He’d known about Sally’s behavior. A teacher had reported it. And he said that he’d never experienced a girl who continued to pursue contact with a boy who made his disinterest so crystal clear. And then the administrator said something really scary: “I wish he’d just go out with her and have it done with!”
When I told the administrator that this was a case of bullying, he seemed surprised and noticeably uncomfortable. This characterization had not occurred to him. Alfred had no black eyes. There was no trail of threats or Internet humiliations. Alfred is a football player, after all. He can hold his own.Dan Olweus, creator of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, says in his book, Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do:
A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.
According to Olweus, this definition includes three important components:
- Aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions;
- A pattern of behavior repeated over time and
- An imbalance of power or strength.
The reason no one thought of Sally’s behavior in the same way as they would any other kind of bully, I strongly suspect, is because she is a girl and Alfred is a boy. The kind of behavior exhibited by Sally would never be tolerated if the roles were switched. We are all programmed to see girls as victims and boys as aggressors. So if Alfred is chided enough to respond by word or action against Sally, he runs the risk of very quickly shifting from target to aggressor in the view of others. At that point, in protection of the “weaker sex,” the school’s zero-tolerance bullying policies would instead come crashing down on him.
Both children, bully and target, are likely well aware of this gender dynamic, which makes the ongoing situation more tricky and potentially harmful to Alfred. Herein lies the imbalance of power between them, and why recognizing Sally as a bully is important. Sally can act out in ways that Alfred cannot. The assumptions that there is no threat to a boy who is harassed by a girl, that fundamentally the boy is in control, and that this is just a silly romance thing that will blow over keep Alfred from seeking help, allow Sally to continue to harass, and justify the adults’ decision to ignore Sally’s behavior until things escalate.
And the escalation of bullying is no small matter. These days bullying can get way out of hand. The power of the mobile phone and the Internet to escalate bullying has been well documented. As CoolMom expresses in her HuffPost comment:
You have no idea the escalation the bullying takes now. It's not name calling, it's filthy character assault, shunning, physical shaming by pantsing -- during class, property destruction, mocking kids during class WHILE THE TEACHER IS IN THE ROOM who stands there and pretends they don't hear. Most adults targeted with this behavior wouldn't be able to stand it.
To combat bully explosions before they blow, Dr. Janice Beal, Houston Clinical Psychologist, says that children need to be taught social skills that help them to govern their behavior and to know when they’ve crossed the line --- how to cope with rejection and how to make friends. “This [Alfred’s and Sally’s] is a difficult situation because our society does not allow a boy to be a target in this way. It’s up to the adults who are nearby and witnessing the exchanges to recognize that both children need help, regardless of their gender.”
Sarah Fisher, of +Works (which stands for "positive works," a holistic bullying prevention program) agrees that bullying is bigger than just the bully and the target. She, like Dr. Beal, says bullying is a social process, not a person. She suggests that if we take an expansive view of the bullying problem, we have to accept that “all children and adults play the roles present in nearly every bullying situation: bully, target, bystander." We need to be mindful that the roles we play and the behavior we model and tolerate as adults -- teacher and parents alike -- often sets the stage for and perpetuates violence, gossiping, exclusion and a whole slew of behaviors characteristic of bullies. “As families and communities we have to model the behavior we want to see.”
This hits home for me in this situation. Sally is not a terrible girl hell-bent on torturing my son. She is a child who needs some direction, correction and to have her needs met. She and Alfred are both products and victims of what we all expect and accept from girls, and what we think we know and demand of boys. The solution to this problem lies far beyond just a bully label and a quick anti-bullying policy punishment. I suspect that there are all sorts of human interactions that fit the bullying definition but include a myriad of issues -- gender, race, socio-economics -- that make the solutions much more complicated and beyond any quick fix. And these complications are why we parents cannot rely solely on school administrators to solve the bullying problem.
The Alfred and Sally story ended with a peaceful solution. Alfred has changed classes so that he no longer shares a classroom with Sally. And a teacher has spoken to Sally about the inappropriateness of her unwanted advances. This has worked for now, for this one story, at this one school. But when it comes to all of the societal forces that come together to encourage and proliferate bullying behavior and aggression, change will not be immediate. As Sarah Fisher says of changing bullying behavior and everybody's mind about it, "this is a marathon, not a sprint."
author of 24 Things You Can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers
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